Urban Farming: Coming to a City Near You
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It's a chilly December day in Oakland, California -- overcast and gray -- and most folks are staying indoors. But outside a modest bungalow on the city's impoverished West Side, three young women volunteers are busy building a backyard garden for a local resident. They dump loads of dark, rich soil into a three-foot by eight-foot planter bed. Fruit and vegetable shoots sitting on the ground offer a glimpse of harvests to come -- strawberries and chard, lettuce, herbs and shelling peas.
The backyard garden construction is a project of City Slicker Farms, a local nonprofit that provides fresh food to a neighborhood better known for its railyards and warehouses than for its green spaces. In just seven years, City Slicker has become a vital part of the West Oakland landscape. Its six market gardens grow a range of organic fruit and vegetables, eggs and honey for sale at a neighborhood produce stand. Judging by the reception from neighborhood residents, the program is a success. "I buy all my vegetables here, and so does my wife," says Tony Lejones, a local truck driver, as he perused the offerings at the City Slicker stand. "The whole neighborhood comes here -- black, white and brown," he says. "They do a fine job."
City Slicker Farms is not alone. Across the U.S., an urban agriculture movement is flowering. In Birmingham, Alabama, Jones Valley Urban Farm is reclaiming abandoned lots and using them to grow organic produce and flowers. Chicago's Ken Dunn takes over unused parking lots and uses the sites to grow heirloom tomatoes. In St. Louis, a housing developer, Whittaker Homes, is setting up an organic farm within a new subdivision.
Veteran environmental activists and community organizers say the recent increase in urban food production marks a real change. "Whether it's the Food Project or Redhook Farm or countless other projects, urban agriculture is definitely increasing," says Betsy Johnson, executive director of the American Community Gardeners Assocation (ACGA). "I think the trend is very positive." There are several concerns propelling the renaissance in city agriculture: the country's obesity epidemic, the drive for more sustainable economies and the fact that horticulture -- with its regular, seasonal rewards -- is an ideal vehicle for community organizing, especially when it comes to youth.
"The drivers come from the public health community and the urban planning community that wants to green cities," says Tom Forster, policy director of the Community Food Security Coalition. "And I think the other big driver is homeland security, which now embraces food production at the local level."
Such worries are motivating more urban food production in Houston, according to Bob Randall, who directs an organization there called Urban Harvest. The group sponsors a series of vegetable growing classes, as well as a permaculture design course. Urban Harvest also launched Houston's first farmers' market, and organizes a yearly fruit tree sale that brings in nearly $50,000 in revenue over a weekend. Randall says increased interest in their programs is in part due to the promise of fossil-free local food production.
"With Houston being the oil capital, people here are more aware than most that oil prices are going to rise faster than inflation," Randall says. "As the cheap fuels dry up, metro areas are at huge risk."
The obesity epidemic, too, has hit low-income communities hardest, since the foods that have the most starch and fat are also the cheapest. Many urban food projects are driven by a desire to provide poor communities with healthier options. That's the idea behind Mill Creek Farm in Philadelphia. Started two years ago by a pair of twenty-something nutrition educators-turned farmers, Mill Creek has turned a vacant lot into a 1.5-acre garden full of carrots, squash, tomatoes and okra. At the height of summer, the farm's produce stand regularly sells out of goods.
"People don't have the option to get fresh, affordable, good quality, organic food in their neighborhood," says Johanna Rosen, one of the farm's co-founders. Community involvement and the promise of economic benefit are vital for urban agriculture projects to succeed. That's what Redhook Farm in Brooklyn is all about. A three-acre farm built on an abandoned baseball field, Redhook Farm uses organic farming and marketing as a way to grow economic opportunities for disadvantaged youth. "We want to have a 21st century park that is training teens for 21st century citizenship," says Ian Marvey, a co-founder of Redhook Farm. "That means hands-on training to build a sustainable economy, whether learning how to grow food [or] how to build a greenhouse."
At the core of urban farming is the desire to put the culture back into agriculture. It's an effort that seeks to place communities at the center of our food system. Back at the City Slicker garden, a cold rain has started to fall, but Liz Monk and the other volunteers keep working. As she shovels compost out of an old pickup truck, Monk tells a visitor that she spent a summer working on a country farm, but says that urban farming is more rewarding. "Just having face-to-face contact -- that's something that's very positive," says Monk. "It's the kind of thing that feeds your soul."
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Jason Mark is the co-author, with Kevin Danaher, of "Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power."